I have been deeply affected this week by on-line commentary and social media reaction to the latest, apparently spontaneous, changes to school accountability measures announced this week by the Department for Education (DfE).
The new policy, effective immediately, states that only the first grade gained by a pupil when taking a GCSE or A level exam will count when assessing school performance. This has meant that schools are having to rapidly assess whether to keep their students entered for exams that are due to take place next month. Which, of course, also means that students who have been preparing since the beginning of term to sit these papers, are either in limbo or have been told that they will have to wait until June.
The ramifications of this mid-year policy change for schools up and down the country are brilliantly summarised in a blog written by York headteacher, John Tomsett. I urge everyone who has an interest in education to read it:
What is most striking is the clear negative effect on morale that this latest in a long line of tinkering is having on the profession. This blog has not been written by a long in the tooth, cynical time server. This is from a driven and committed educationalist.
Mr Tomsett is a member of the Headteachers Roundtable, a group I have written about before (“Gove won’t listen to academics or teachers, what about parental demand?” http://wp.me/p2dr6s-fh ) which has been referenced in recent speeches by both the Secretary of State and his Shadow. Judging by this policy and the opposition reaction to it, neither are taking the notice that they should of what he and his colleagues are saying.
The recent assertion by Mr Gove that morale in the teaching profession “has never been higher” is as clear a wanton refusal to stare facts in the face as I have ever come across. His preference for competition over collaboration is having a destructive effect on student’s futures and the morale of those he expects to enact his policies.
Don’t take my word for it, just reference the time line of Suffolk tweeter @Arsinhy who has retweeted the (not for the feint-hearted) reaction of hundreds of Year 11 pupils who have been subjected to the fourth change in examination rules since undertaking their GCSEs.
Reference also the latest piece from another blogging headteacher, who is consistently and concisely informative , Geoff Barton. The following from his blog is the best summary of the current madness that I have come across:
“I remember in my first few years of headship feeling that I was part of a collective mission to improve our schools. Partnership and collaboration and innovation would help us to make our education system world class. We were in this together.
Now, it seems, in an era of comparable outcomes, my school can only do better if yours does worse. We will prosper only if you lot fester.”
So if constantly changing education policy isn’t welcomed by students or teachers, who exactly is it supposed to benefit?
The key lies in the significance of school league tables.
Naively, I once believed that these were aimed at parents, such as I, so that we could compare local schools, and, in a blatantly crude way, make a “choice” accordingly. This is how successive governments have presented them, but this is not their primary function.
What they are now is a trigger. Should your position in the league table slip you should expect a visit from Ofsted in the near future. And, using “raw data”, a judgement can then be made that your school is no longer one of the winners, but is instead “failing”. That is why even “outstanding” schools fear the effect one less good year’s exam results can have on the crude league table.
Of course, by their very nature, all schools cannot be near the top of a table. Some have to be ranked lower down.
Remember: “my school can only do better if yours does worse. We will prosper only if you lot fester.”
The prescribed remedy from the DfE for “failure” is just as crude and, in my opinion, is crucial to understanding why Mr Gove won’t leave things alone for five minutes.
He believes that “failure” is due to the structure of a school and the nature of those running it. That a school is incapable of improving the exam results of its pupils unless it has “freedom” from local authority control, or, in the case of existing academies, if the wrong people are running them.
So who are the right people? Who are guaranteed to “turn around” these schools?
Because this week’s shenanigans are the clearest evidence yet that these are the people that Gove seeks to benefit. The vast majority of “free schools” are already run by these hastily constructed “Trusts” but only a very small proportion of our established schools are under their control.
We already know that the Secretary of State is “minded” to allow for-profit schools should an election win provide a further five years of power. The more private “sponsors” that are in place prior to 2015, the easier it will be. And the more that are in place the more difficult it will be to reverse the “reforms” of the past three years.
So how to accelerate the number of “failing” schools? Introducing the EBACC measure into league table measures has proved difficult and slow in its intended effect. So let’s disrupt anther cohort of pupils (remember last year’s GCSE fiasco) and make the hoop that you are required to jump through even smaller by only counting the first exam entry.
Those who can’t jump through the hoop will be “introduced” to “approved sponsors”.
So cut out the “raising standards” guff Mr Gove. It is mathematically impossible to make “more schools better than average” Mr Wilshaw. Come clean about your privatisation agenda so we all know where we stand.
The lack of forceful coherent opposition to this clear strategy makes this easier of course. I cannot shift the suspicion that Mr Twigg has stronger ties than he should with these self same “sponsors” from his time as a schools minister in the last government. If the fear of “we’re only carrying on what you started” is handicapping his approach then he needs to make way for someone without the baggage.
Lay out a clear strategy that commits government not to make policy on a five year cycle. It is unfair on the profession, on students and their parents to have this constant uncertainty, how can such an atmosphere encourage quality learning? And why on Earth are we prepared to risk losing clearly successful, driven and engaged head teachers from the profession?
Gove calls them “enemies of promise”. In fact, they are enemies of a promise he has made to party donors.
If we are all prepared to go along with the Secretary of State’s quotes in compliant newspapers then we will repent at our leisure when more unqualified “Executive Principals” are running our schools.
Concerned citizens need to act. Promote our local schools, back our teachers, champion collaboration over competition, demand that professionals are listened to.
Tell it like it is.